Well, well, well, we have a race after all.
As the Phillies put more distance between themselves and the Atlanta Braves in the National League East standings with a lopsided 9-0 win Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, Cliff Lee moved more conspicuously into the NL Cy Young Award conversation.
Charlie Manuel avoided the subject after his team went to 8½ games in front of the Braves with a little more than three weeks left.
"That's not for me to answer questions like that," the Phillies manager said when asked who deserved the Cy Young Award among his pitchers. "Every one of them."
At the moment Lee, 16-7 with a team-low 2.47 ERA among the starters and a team-high 204 strikeouts, seems most deserving.
Nobody in baseball has more shutouts than Lee, who needed exactly 100 pitches to blank the Braves on five hits. His six shutouts are the most in the NL since Tim Belcher had eight for Los Angeles in 1989 and the most by any pitcher since Randy Johnson combined for six with Houston and Seattle in 1998.
Only Arizona's Ian Kennedy (18) and Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw (17) have more victories in the National League.
Lee, after surpassing 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career with six Monday night, ranks second behind Kershaw in that department and in innings pitched. Only teammate Roy Halladay is allowing fewer walks per nine innings.
"The more he pitches in this league, I think he learns the hitters better and I think that helps him," Manuel said. "Tonight, for instance, I think he knew Atlanta has some good fastball hitters and he knew when to get his breaking ball on them."
A perfect example of that came in the second inning when rookie Freddie Freeman stepped in with a runner at first base and nobody out.
Curveball, curveball, curveball was the sequence to the power-hitting lefty. Swinging strike, foul ball, and swinging strike were the futile results for Freeman.
"Chooch did an unbelievable job calling the game and I felt like we had them off balance from the start," Lee said of catcher Carlos Ruiz. "He gets a lot of credit for that. I might have shook him off once or twice the whole game. I threw a lot of curveballs early. That was a big pitch for me. Then I got a big lead early and threw strikes."
Lee, of course, was terrific in 2009 when he helped the Phillies get back to the World Series for a second straight year. But this June and August have been two of the best months of his life, and now he has moved seamlessly into September.
"To me, it's still the same [as 2009]," first baseman Ryan Howard said after contributing his 31st home run of the season. "It may have risen a little bit because of some of the other guys. I just feel like those guys feed off each other."
Lee respectfully disagrees, saying he doesn't compare seasons or feed off his fellow pitchers.
"I don't really compare this year to other years," he said. "I definitely have confidence and think I'm a good pitcher, but am I better than myself a couple years ago? I don't know. I would think I continue to get better. Any time you have experience and go through things, it should make you better."
Lee had the experience of facing the Braves three other times this season. He lost two of those games and the Phillies lost all three. Apparently he learned from that experience. Unquestionably, he has gotten better through the course of this season.
He extended his latest scoreless streak to 292/3 innings, which pairs nicely with the 34-inning scoreless streak he had earlier this season. He is 7-0 with a 0.96 ERA in his last seven starts and hitters are batting .187 against him in that stretch.
Lee is in the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award and if he continues pitching the way he is now, Manuel and pitching coach Rich Dubee should consider starting him in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
After all, he is pitching at least as well as Halladay and Hamels and if the tie goes to the best hitter, then that is definitely Lee.
He raised his average to .212 Monday night by ripping a 96-m.p.h. fastball up the middle for a single in the eighth inning. Let's see Roy Halladay do that.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at email@example.com
or @brookob on Twitter.